Pokemon is by far the game I have written about the most while at TheGamer. I haven’t done the maths, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was double that of whatever is in second place. Mass Effect or Red Dead, most likely. Pokemon isn't my favourite game by such a huge margin, but I love writing about it, and it seems you all enjoy reading about it. Most of what I write isn't trying to harvest hate clicks by talking about how Pikachu sucks either, but instead celebrating why Pokemon is so popular and zooming in on ways it could (and should) improve. The more I write, the more I find everything comes back to the Wild Area.
Part of the reason I write about Pokemon so often is because there's so much of it. There's the anime, a couple of spin-off games a year, and last year we had two mainline games as well. There are new cards revealed, esports tournaments, fan events, and a host of other constantly swirling activities that means Pokemon always has something fresh to say. I don't write about Pokemon movies much myself, but my colleague Eric Switzer reviewed every one in order. The old games never feel old, either. For most of last year, I did a weekly column wherein I revisited each location in Kanto in order, trying to see the world as a tourist would to write about why it felt so special to me.
For the modern stuff though, the Wild Area feels like a before and after moment for Pokemon. We all thought Sword & Shield being on the Switch would be a definitive moment for the series. Since Sword & Shield is home to the Wild Area, I suppose that's correct, although not in the way we necessarily expected. Sword & Shield is a fairly standard Pokemon game. It falls in the middle of the pack in my own subjective enjoyment and, ignoring the Wild Area – it's mostly optional and dropped in the middle of the map with no connection to the outside world – doesn't change much. It's still all about travelling around a map, defeating gyms, and becoming the very best.
Each town has its own aesthetic and personality to go with its gym and leader, but Sword & Shield doesn't really do much with the power of the Switch or the ability to use the 3D plane. They're often flat and lifeless, and even the better designed ones like Ballonlea are too small and lack the characters to make them stand out. Sword & Shield was not a definitive moment, but it hid a game-changing feature with its Wild Area.
The two mainline games that followed Sword & Shield were Legends Arceus and Scarlet & Violet. Both placed a greater emphasis on exploration than ever before and fundamentally changed what it was to be a Pokemon game. Legends was open-zone, letting you wander through some huge areas and catch Pokemon freely – crucially, it also took away your need to battle Pokemon, instead letting you sneak up on them and catch them with a well aimed throw from afar.
While Scarlet & Violet unfortunately walked back this evolution of catching mechanics, it added even more exploration, becoming a fully open world. In both of these games, Pokemon roamed around in the overworld and trainers were encouraged to explore widely, not just stick to one patch of grass at a time while moving through the world in a fixed order. It was the Wild Area which kickstarted this trend, and for a series like Pokemon which has always resisted change, a permanent transformation of the formula is of major importance.
You can trace parts of this back earlier, to Pokemon Go and Let's Go, but it was the Wild Area which iterated on the formula in all the right ways so it could be built upon by others with ease. Future Pokemon games are likely to continue to develop this adventuring spirit, and so much of Pokemon's future is owed to the Wild Area. It was celebrated for its freshness at the time, but also criticised as inconsequential and guilty of disrupting the game's pace. A few years down the line, it is clear how important it was.
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